Making the Toys
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
President, Avalanche Press
It really is all about the toys.
For close to two decades, we’ve printed game pieces in huge numbers (huge by our standards, anyway). I’m pretty sure the smallest lot was 1,200 units (for the four-sheet set that had DAK ‘44/Polish Steel, Iron Wolves and Hopeless But Not Serious); most have been in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 units.
That adds up to a lot of counters printed over the years. Tons of them, in cartons weighing between 25 and 33 pounds that really hurt when they fall on you. Over the years, the need to make a five- or seven-year supply of games has been an enormous drag on Avalanche Press.
And now, finally, we don’t have to do that. We’re using a new process for making game pieces that are laser- rather than die-cut. War on the Equator is the experimental item, since it doesn’t use pieces from any other Panzer Grenadier game. That way, if the pieces turned out to be usable but not really compatible with the older-style die-cut pieces, we could still sell them.
The pieces turned out to be different than what we’ve had before, but certainly very nice and totally compatible. There’s no compression from the die stamping the cardboard, so there isn’t a “front” and “back” of the piece as with die-cut pieces – both sides are smooth. That makes them feel very different to fingers used to old-style counters.
Inside, the “core” of the piece is golden-brown and looks and feels like it’s made of wood, though it’s actually thick paperboard. The cuts are very precise and leave no flash or frayed corners. There are some tiny scorch marks from the laser on a few of the pieces; I don’t like the scorches myself but I seem to be a minority. And it is less annoying than frayed corners, and less disruptive than the raised ridges caused by the die striking the counters. The counters look much better when pushed out of their frame, which actually carries most of the tiny burn marks, and our supplier has greatly reduced the scorching with the second set they’ve produced, Panzer Lehr. That’s why we did an experimental product first.
Since there’s no die-cutting, that means there’s not a whole lot of mis-cutting. We haven’t run across any mis-aligned pieces yet, and even those that are a little off-center are fine since there is no “valley” between the pieces where the die punched them apart.
You’ll see plenty of uses for the new laser-cut capability. The new-style counters will allow the release of a number of book projects that had been held up for a very long time. Panzer Lehr, The Kaiser’s Navy, Fortress Malta and Western Desert Force can now enter production, and smaller boxed games like Remember the Maine and possibly King of Kings. We can also do some limited-run, direct-sale-only games like Red Desert or Custoza with these pieces.
The new-model pieces aren’t really economical for larger games like Kursk, South Flank. They’re much too expensive, and our source doesn’t have the capacity to provide the quantity needed for a full-sized print run. But there still might be some uses for them in this area.
Playing pieces made this way do have a new aspect that we’ve only just begun to consider: because they’re not cut on a die, they don’t have to take up a full sheet. Supplements that only need a handful of pieces are now economically viable. We’ve been caught so long in the printing paradigm of 8.5x11-inch sheets that I don’t have anything in mind yet.
Since we announced War on the Equator’s release with mounted pieces, I’ve been asked about our other downloads. Downloads re-issued with pieces have never sold well, but on the other hand, the threshold to break even on them is now pretty low. The very large ones (Waltzing Matilda, To Hell With Spain, Grossdeutschland 1946) are pretty much ruled out by size – I don’t think even the hardest-core customers are ready for the $49.99 zippy-with-counters. I do see an opportunity to split Waltzing Matilda between the Japanese and Australians and I have definite plans for To Hell With Spain.
Any future releases of downloadable items like Indian Unity with the new-style pieces will be sold direct-only, just like War on the Equator. They're not going to sell many copies, we know this going in, and we don't need their tiny sales casting a negative light on our line with retailers and distributors. These folks do not care about the particulars of any of our widgets, and will average The Mouse That Roared's laughable sales numbers in with the good ones for Kursk: South Flank or SWWAS: Plan Z. And that could cripple future sales.
What about future downloadable supplements? They have a certain following, particularly among overseas customers who like the zero-shipping-cost aspect. Right now we have no new downloads-with-counters on the upcoming list, so it’s not something we need to decide on any time soon.
In some ways, I’m glad we didn’t have this capability a few years ago. I doubtlessly would have squandered the opportunity by releasing modules featuring Austrians or Romanians or the brave stand of the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenians against Hungary in 1939 (I wish I was making that last bit up – but I actually designed it). If an outside designer wants to submit something on an offbeat topic, we’ll probably look very hard at doing it – we like them. And there will no doubt come urges to craft unusual games that just can’t be stopped. But we need to expend staff time making the products you want the most. And now we can.